Stress Management

Stress Relief and Stress management strategies

One critical micro-mental health journey is the stress response at a person’s biological level, sometimes called the stress response. The stress response is a set of body reactions to new or threatening situations. The reactions were established over the course of human evolution so we would have appropriate automatic reactions to the dangerous situations we faced as early humans. Some stress is essential to life, it is of concern when the level of stress far exceeds our ability to deal with it.

The cycle happens very quickly but happens in a series of steps which are largely outside of a person’s conscious awareness. These happen continuously through a person’s day. A person’s patterns of reaction to stress are based on the brain pathways that have been developed, based on what the person has learned and remembered in their life, influenced by learning from their family and social group. This journey involves connections between different parts of the person’s brain, the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex as well as pituitary and adrenal glands.

Understanding this is relevant for students because learning and memory, and thus success at school or work are very sensitive to stress. Thus, knowing the different steps helps be more precise at design health promotion strategies that can help the person learn better skills for relieving or managing their stress.

This description is very brief, and intended to give general guidance for designing health promotion strategies. A more detailed reference should be consulted for a more complete understanding of the psychobiology of this micro-journey. 

First, a person reacts to different stimuli (sight, sound, smell, kinesthetic feeling) or situations based on the meaning they make of it – assessing the degree of threat, based on what they’ve learned in life.

  • Some stressors can be objectively assessed as mattering to anyone, such as an earthquake or other crisis in the natural world, but for the most part, the reaction to a stressor is subjective.
  • The person’s assessment is based on their perception of the type and level of threat (or an imagined outcome) plus their degree of control and ability to cope with it.

If assessed as a significant threat, the amygdala signals the hippocampus to stimulate the release of cortisol, which then activates or depresses different body systems (breathing, heart rate, digestion). The person’s pattern of response may be productive (in other words positively adaptive), or unproductive (such as avoidance or dissociation, or moving to addictive substances or processes as ways to handle the stress).

So health promotion strategies need to address both legs of this journey:

  • First, cognitive and emotional strategies can help the person retrain their meaning-making process.
  • Second, once the fear response (flight, freeze or fight) has been triggered, then relaxation and/or mindfulness practices help to reduce the impact.
  • Positive psychology practices can also influence the stress response.

Stress relief strategies will help only in the short term. A student will need to develop a routine practice of stress management skills to develop any significant capability to handle stress in productive ways.

Trauma (toxic stress) in early years of life (or from intergenerational and historic impacts) influences the development of a person’s brain pathways. Thus different people differ in their ability to metabolize stress. It is important to design trauma-informed health promotion strategies, as well as curriculum design and delivery practices.